Five years ago, during my first week of college
in a new town, a high school
friend invited me to drinks, where the other students were discussing the struggle of being a member of the LGBTQ community
in a heteronormative world.
“How about you, Alice? How do you identify?” a student inquired.
“Uh... uh, straight, I guess,” I replied, feeling awkwardly caught in the spotlight.
I'd only met one person who identified as a lesbian in my conservative hometown. I'd read and heard about homosexuality and bisexuality
, but it wasn't until college that I realized how broad the spectrum is. There were people
who identified as pansexual, bisexual, heterosexual, and asexual at the drinks.
Finding myself in a space
that welcomed different sexualities allowed me to consider the possibility that I wasn't completely straight, which was something I'd never given myself the opportunity to do before.
For one thing, I suspected I had a high school crush on a girl, and for another, I'd never felt drawn to sex. While many of my college friends
had an active sex life, my hookups were usually limited to a kiss.
I experimented with different labels. Maybe I was biromantic and heterosexual. Maybe I was asexual. The one that seemed to fit best was demisexual, which means you only feel sexual attraction toward people with whom you have an emotional bond. But even this wasn't entirely correct. I'd had sexual encounters with strangers.
I never voiced any of these labels out loud because, while I had found a space that welcomed different sexual identities, I also got the sense that you needed to be 100% certain about your label, and I worried I didn't align strongly enough with any specific label to claim it as my own. Similarly, Harriet Williamson, who is pansexual, wrote on openDemocracy that she didn't join an LGBTQ community in college because she didn't feel welcome.
My lack of identification with rigid heterosexuality isn't unique. According to a 2018 YouGov study, one-third of participants, aged 18 to 34, identified as something other than totally heterosexual. While it's unclear whether these participants identify with a label, the study suggests that a growing number of people are sexually fluid and identify as being somewhere between heterosexual and homosexual.
When I graduated from college, I kept looking for the "right label." Despite reading and learning that you don't have to meet certain criteria to identify with a label, I never felt confident enough to claim any label as my own.
I've realized that my obsession with labels stemmed from my desire to find a simple explanation for my sexuality; if I could find a single word to describe my sexuality, perhaps dating
would be easier for me.
Many queer people go through a period of "questioning," which involves a process of exploration of their sexual orientation or gender
, which can lead to them finding the right label or labels. For others, like me, who struggle to find the "right label," we can feel stuck in the questioning stage.
However, the concept of labeling is cultural; in fact, there have been cultures throughout history
that were accepting of queer people but did not have a concept of sexual orientation.
I've realized that my obsession with labels stemmed from a desire to find a simple explanation for my sexuality. If I could find a single word to describe my sexuality, maybe dating would be easier for me. Typing the words "demisexual" or "asexual" in a Tinder bio seemed like an easy way to connect with the right people.
And when a guy couldn't figure out why I wasn't interested in sex right away, I assumed a label would provide a simple answer. However, obsessing over finding a label hasn't helped me grow in my sexual identity. Who I date or how I have sex shouldn't be dictated by the label I choose.
Furthermore, sexual orientations can shift over time, so claiming a label does not have to be a lifelong commitment, or even a commitment at all. A psychologist who studied 100 women
for over a decade discovered that their sexual orientations shifted as they transitioned from adolescence to adulthood.
Labels can be useful because they help people find others with whom they can connect, which is often an important part of understanding one's sexuality or gender. Labels can also be useful on a policy level because they help people understand a complex human experience, which can be useful for things like funding.
Choosing a label, on the other hand, can complicate the process of understanding one's sexuality or gender; it took me 23 years to realize that a label does not provide some kind of inner truth about my identity or sexuality.
I've given up looking for a label because I don't know who my future self will be attracted to, and I don't believe that my journey toward fully embracing and understanding my sexuality includes fitting into a single box. So, yes, this may make my Tinder profile less accessible.
When — and if — the right person comes along, they will simply have to work
a little harder to understand me.
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